There is a scene in Desierto, a new film starring Gael García Bernal, in which Bernal’s character Moises and his companion discuss their motivations for crossing the border from Mexico into the United States. Moises says he’s trying to make it back to his wife and young son in California after a broken taillight led to his deportation back to Mexico. “I don’t want to disappear,” he says. Like any human who’s ever lived, he wants to be seen. But being seen—in this case, by a hardened vigilante intent on picking off illegal immigrants with a rifle, as though their deaths might win him points in a video game—is just the thing that might lead to his disappearance.
Written and directed by Jonás Cuarón (whose father Alfonso, a producer of Desierto, won the Oscar for Best Director for Gravity), Desierto is a thriller that begins and ends, as its title suggests, in the desert. Moises is one of a group of strangers who have paid a guide to lead them across the border, a risky enough proposition in the face of the landscape’s unforgiving elements and the uncertainty that awaits them on the other side. But their journey is violently interrupted by an armed civilian, Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), and his aptly named German Shepherd, Tracker, who has taken it upon himself to pick up where Border Patrol leaves off.
It’s not García Bernal’s first time working on a project about migration. In 2010, he co-directed a series of short films, called Los Invisibles, about Central American migrants living in Mexico. “I’m a migrant,” he says. “And therefore it is an intrinsic part of my nature. In a way, it would be weird not to be facing the subject all the time.”
But in Desierto, it feels more timely than ever. The movie lands in U.S. theaters on Oct. 14, just weeks before an election in which immigration has been one of the most divisive issues. “We’ve come to this point in the world right now where we’re talking about the issue of migration in the most idiotic way,” he laments. “We have to talk about this issue in a comprehensive, much more benign and understanding way. It is a phenomenon that will always happen, and we need to establish ways to not criminalize this phenomenon.”
The film, which is Mexico’s 2016 entry for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, has inspired polarized responses. Morgan’s character is, in many ways, an embodiment of the anti-immigrant sentiment that’s increasingly found a mouthpiece in Donald Trump, and many have taken to Twitter to express their support for the vigilante’s mission, calling him “a true American” and a “hero.” “I am rooting for the killer,” reads one reaction. “Build that wall!” read many more.
“It’s become normal to openly speak and show these kind of divisive, racial policies,” says García Bernal. “I don’t live here, but I wonder how people feel that actually live here, with this new rhetoric that is out there. How does a seven-year-old kid feel to listen to a presidential candidate say that he and his family are rapists, murderers? It breaks my heart to think about that.”
But García Bernal is unconvinced that the problem might be solved on Nov. 8. “I just feel like all of this has already caused so much trouble that it cannot be solved in an election. I think that Clinton might win, maybe, but I’m already surprised that half of the population thinks like that. I’m already disenchanted.” And Desierto is not just about America. Although it’s set on the U.S.-Mexico border, it could just as easily have built its drama around a dinghy full of migrants from Syria or Libya, facing a set of threats no less inhospitable to their survival.
At its best, Desierto is a plea for the humanization of those who might otherwise be dehumanized. Sam has no qualms about playing God in these immigrants’ lives because he sees them as less human than his dog. And someone taking Trump’s debunked claims about immigrants at face value may be driven, by fear or resentment, to identify with something in Sam. But at the end of the day, it’s simple, says García Bernal. “We’re talking about human beings.”